Say my name, say my name

Having just hit the four-year mark of living “far, far away,” I’ve been wrestling with my American-ness lately. Not in terms of politics or current affairs, just generally about where my American identity appears on the Venn diagram of me.

Culture is easiest to see when you step outside of it. Having a culture is what gives that exciting electricity when looking out the window of a cab on the way from the airport in a new place. Sometimes stepping out of one’s culture reveals that deeply held truths are actually just opinions. I see this in the flares of annoyance I feel around unnecessarily time-consuming recycling systems (my kingdom for a single-stream receptacle with curbside pick-up!) or the unspoken social conventions when meeting someone in a public doorway (clearly it makes sense to hold the door…or maybe not).

I’ve made some accommodations to my new homeland. I’ve set my calendar app to start my week on Mondays. I celebrate Easter Eve. (Don’t ask why, because I don’t know.) I make stronger coffee, and I try to drink it sitting down. It just happened.

Other concessions are harder to make. I still prefer to American books, podcasts, TV and movies. It’s not just a lazy language thing, but the settings and the references. It’s about seeing the world with an American gaze.

There’s another aspect of cultural identity I’ve been thinking about lately: its purpose of providing contours to my otherwise diffuse psyche, like personality eyeliner. A lifetime of fourth of July sparklers, yellow school busses and two-for-Tuesday rock blocks has resulted in a very particular person who is me. If I let this container go, will I still be me? Of course I will, but will I really?

But what happens when cultural identity is not so much a vase for our bouquet of personal quirks, but more of a box, closing us off? Can it be made permeable? I think so. With little conscious effort, the box is becoming more of a butterfly net.

Take my name, for instance, for which I have most definitely not nailed down a consistent pronunciation. Some days I introduce myself and pronounce its ‘r’ with such an American accent that I risk swallowing my tongue. Other days I’m happy to let it softly tap the roof of my mouth, behind my front teeth, in the way that my new language wants it to be.

Some days the container is more permeable than others. I feel slightly more invisible, more diluted, but also more connected.

I have other containers. Woman. Mother, even Special Needs Mother. Employee. Nearing 50. Immigrant. Each one has its own comforts, its own limitations.

I’d be really curious to hear from others whose identities have become more like butterfly nets. What made you aware of your containers? Did you find parts of you that transcend labels? What are they like?

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Recombobulating

Last spring I shared details about the epic adventure my family and I were making as we moved ourselves and our 61 boxes of prized possessions across the Atlantic Ocean to Sweden.

At the time, I noted how the journey was feeling like a real adventure, a rite of passage, with all the classic phases of disintegrating into some sort of gooey mess, crossing a threshold, and then becoming recombobulated in some new (if not improved) format on the other side. I was pretty impressed with myself.

Well, it turns out that I did not nail the landing as crisply as I thought. recombobulation areaApparently, moving yourself and your family to another country, finding jobs, navigating a new healthcare and school system, finding a place to live, moving again, figuring out where to get your hair cut, how to pay bills on-line, and finding a new groove takes time. There is no rushing it. There are no shortcuts. You just have to get through the day over and over again until it becomes less new feeling, like wearing in a pair of shoes.

It has been a summer and fall of unsettling change. Of being disembodied, despite my hopes for a swift entry into everyday Swedish life. You would think that that would have provided excellent blogging fodder. Au contraire, mon frère. Despite my secret dream to be able to produce a steady, pithy and hilarious commentary about our new life à la David Sedaris in France, I got nothing.

Writing a good blog post for me has always been a formula that looked something like this:

 interesting situation + new or clearer insight = new point of view

These last few months have been so topsy-turvy that while there have been plenty of interesting situations, the pace at which they’re happening is so fast that the insights either don’t stick or just slip through my fingers. As a result, the writing just hasn’t been there. And the living thing is just so time consuming. When would I have time to write, between figuring out how to re-load my public transportation pass and how to recycle used lightbulbs in a new land?

The trick with living with this rate of change has been to be patient and to let go, something I’m not always good at. Considering how much change parenthood has put me through, I should be an expert by now. But I’m not.

This evening when I head home to my new house, I will hopefully not accidentally walk past it. When I go to cook dinner, I will hopefully only need to open three drawers or less to find the spatula. And please, someone, let there be enough toilet paper. Maybe I’m asking for too much. Patience.

Greetings from the other side

“I sing the body electric, I celebrate the me yet to come, a toast to my own reunion…”                      –Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford

Oh, to be a stranger in a strange land. My family and I sold our house, said good-bye to our jobs, our friends and family, and about 90% of our stuff and crossed the Atlantic by ship in a sort of 21st century reverse emigration from the US to Stockholm, Sweden, where my husband is from. We landed a little more than a week ago.

In earlier posts I shared how this experience has been both an adventure and a rite of passage, divided by the anthropologists into three distinct phases—a preliminal phase of ending some aspects of my old identity, a liminal phase spent in a metamorphic trans-continental boat ride, and now, this final post-liminal phase of coming out the other side a new and different person.

And new and different it has been.

We arrived in Sweden to festive pomp and circumstance after disembarking our ship in England and hopping a short flight to Stockholm. Flags, streamers, champagne, hugs, dinner in the garden, even the cherry tree blooming on cue for our arrival…it was a reception in the truest sense of the word.

Reality hit the next morning like a hammer. I was startled awake in a disorienting free fall while my mind attempted to locate my body in its mental GPS. Yes, dear, down there in that long skinny country on the top of Europe, that’s where you are. Thud.

The disorientation lingered like a hangover. Insert confused woman montage sequence here: confused woman working the coffee maker (weak coffee being grounds for deportation in my new homeland), confused woman figuring out the dishwasher, the washing machine, the shower. Each moment left me stymied.

The pinnacle of ridiculousness–at one point I stood for several minutes, swearing under my breath, trying to open the front door by turning the deadbolt lock to a variety of positions. Finally I realized that unlike my American front door, which opens in, Swedish front doors open out. Duh.

Given that I spend several weeks here each summer and even lived here many years ago, I’m surprised to be this disoriented. I see now that on those vacations I somehow skirted around many of these domestic chores. Determined to be a thoughtful house guest, last weekend I pragmatically attacked each task head on.

The remainder of the week continued to offer a real sense of seeing life with fresh eyes and beginner’s mind–not necessarily bad, just curiously different. Can I take my daughter from the schoolyard at the end of the day or do I need to tell someone? What do I need to ride the bus? What radio station should I listen to? What brand of hot dogs should I buy? (And these are just the little things.)

The confusion fog will certainly hang around while I continue to find some sense of self, or as the rite of passage model suggests, a new embodiment. There is a definite feeling of rematerialization as I go about my new life, like vapor turning into liquid, liquid turning into solid. With each day, I feel a little less like a cloud with feet.

This afternoon someone asked how I was doing. They asked if I was overwhelmed, using a phrase in Swedish which uncannily translates into “being in a state of disintegration.” I smiled and was able to reply honestly. “No, quite the opposite.”

Leaving the safe harbor

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

It’s time for an adventure. Maybe not an Everest climb or paddle down the Amazon, but for someone like me whose idea of a great Friday night is Indian takeout and a Midsomer Murder on the DVR, it’s kind of a big deal.

In a few weeks, my husband, the kids and I will be moving to Europe. Sweden to be precise. My husband was born and raised there. It’s where we met, a long, long time ago. It’s where we got married and started our life together. After 18 years of living in the US, we’ve decided it’s time for Sweden again.

I’ve made this trans-Atlantic move twice before. Before kids. Before a career. Before owning a home. Before turning 40. Before turning 30 even. It was an adventure those times, too. But this one seems so much more adventure-y, in that terrifying-and-ludicrous way adventures do.

There’s so much more to lose and miss. That’s a good sign; it means that I have much to be grateful for: a wide, rich network of extended family, a few deeply rooted friendships, a blessings of rewarding work and sheltering home, and schools in which my children grow and thrive.

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.” -Lewis Carroll

It’s no surprise, given how much I am leaving behind, that people are curious about why we’re going. Frankly, I spent a lot of time being ambivalent about it myself, and that confusion likely telegraphs itself from my heart to the outside world.

I wasn’t even going to try to explain, assuming no one would understand since I didn’t. (And honestly, how do you tell your family that you’re moving to be closer to family? Try it.) But a family member encouraged me to make the effort. So here goes.

No single explanation will really suffice. Instead, there are many. We are leaving family and friends here, yes, to be close to family and friends who we have missed for a long time. There’s the opportunity for the kids to have a day-to-day life spent with cousins and aunts and uncles—and for me to see four of the world’s most perfect sisters- and brothers-in-law more than once a year. My heart smiles when I think of that.

Less certain but also appealing is the possibility that if we play our cards right, we have a chance for a somewhat less crazybusy life. Sweden’s work policies tend to be a bit more compatible with raising a family, and I do look forward to that. I say “less certain” because I’ve long suspected that crazybusy is my default setting. Here’s hoping for a re-boot!

The explanation I’m less comfortable giving to my friends who don’t have kids with special needs (but which my special needs friends seem to get before I get the whole sentence out of my mouth): I’m thinking about the future. It’s hard to explain. Whether it was a brilliant move or a foolish one…I’ll let you know in 20 or 30 years.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” -John A. Shedd

A woman at a special needs conference two weeks ago overheard me telling a friend that we were moving to Europe. “OMG, you have a special needs kid and you’re moving to a different country?!?” The challenges of figuring out the ins-and-outs of new education, health care, and disability systems, finding new schools, new jobs, new doctors, new insurance, establishing all those new relationships with the school bus dispatcher and the pharmacy assistant, not to mention selling a home and packing—it’s exhausting and overwhelming to think about.

But I am grateful in knowing that I’m ready to try. Two years ago, it would have been out of the question. Today, I’m game for anything. I always dreamed I’d have adventures. Why shouldn’t we now? The wonderful thing about learning new skills like advocacy, collaboration and creative problem solving is that they are global. I’m bringing them with me. Thank you to all my wonderful teachers.

“Travel is not really about leaving our homes, but leaving our habits.” -Pico Iyer

We leave in one month. We’ve decided to take a boat. It’s the Queen Mary 2, and apparently you’re not allowed to call it a cruise, or some butler will come out and dump you in the ocean. It will be a wonderful chance to decompress between a busy period of leaving and a busy period of arriving. Or it will be a disaster, a family of four including one little boy who can’t sit still or drink tea without spilling among 1,700 very English English people. May God protect their shuffle board games. Either way, it’s a mode of transportation in keeping with our keen sense of adventure and desire for the romantic gesture.

In the mean time, there’s the leaving. The packing and the decluttering is so luscious that it deserves its own post. The tossing of the years of stuff. The unsubscribing from catalogs and email newsletters. The decluttering of the beliefs about who I am, what I am capable of, and what life will be life.

“Definition of ‘adventure’: extreme circumstances recalled in tranquility.” -Jules the Kiwi

More news to come on these extreme circumstances, or this adventure, for sure. Until then, it’s time to go pack a few more boxes.